How a flaw in the system lands Thailand’s elderly in trouble
A 99-year-old grandmother says she will go to prison if the government sues for repayment of Bt100,000 in subsidies whose overlapping claim rules were too complicated for her to understand.
“How could I know that I am not eligible for these subsidies for the elderly?” asked Saeng Sudkhum. “Besides, I have no means to return the money.”
Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has no plans to send her to prison, though. On Tuesday, the prime minister assured thousands of seniors that they don’t have to worry about lawsuits because there would be a happy ending for all involved.
“I understand the plight of all the affected grandparents. You’ve done nothing wrong and neither have officials,” Prayut said. “I will sort out the problems without you being taken to court or forced to return the money.”
What’s wrong then?
Saeng is among more than 10,000 seniors who have received not just the monthly state living allowance for the elderly but also other government payments. In Saeng’s case, she receives a monthly pension of Bt10,000 for her son, a soldier who died on duty years ago.
She was receiving the pension long before she started getting the living allowance for the elderly.
The government began paying the allowance to elderly Thais, regardless of their financial status, in 2012. The subsidy payment was initially set at Bt500 before being raised. At present, those in their 60s receive Bt600 per month, those in their 70s receive Bt700 and those in their 80s get Bt800 per month. Those aged over 90 get the top monthly payment of Bt1,000.
While there are a few other conditions for eligibility, most Thais think they are automatically entitled to the subsidy when they reach old age.
The Mekong’s source is in China, and it then runs through the Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Water levels in the river are have fallen over the past couple of years, lower water levels accompanied by longer dry season.
Not all seniors are eligible…
However, the government has announced that the subsidy will only be paid to senior citizens who have not claimed other state welfare. The definition of state welfare covers pensions, allowances or similar benefits, as well as salaries or other regular remuneration from government agencies or local administrative bodies. The rules also say that people who live in shelters provided by the state or local authorities are ineligible for the subsidy.
To people familiar with pensions – such as retired civil servants – the rules are not too complicated to decipher. But Saeng has never been a member of the civil service and does not really consider herself a pensioner.
Overlapping claims detected through single database
For more than a decade, local administrative bodies have paid subsidies for their elderly residents after reviewing their applications and related documents. They had no idea that many of these elderly villagers were also receiving separate state benefits from other agencies.
However, all that changed recently.
“With the help of technology, we have now developed a single database that can detect overlapping claims,” explained Nilobol Weawwabsri, deputy director of the Comptroller-General’s Department.
Her department began investigating overlapping claims at the request of the Local Administration Department.
After receiving its list of overlapping claims, relevant authorities had no choice but to demand money back from overpaid seniors, said Finance Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith.
“Officials would be accused of wrongdoing if they did nothing despite knowing about the overlapping claims,” he noted.
Arkhom said the situation can only be resolved with discussions to find clear-cut solutions, such as an offer from the government to provide assistance.
Humanitarian approach recommended
Although the law says recipients of benefits via overlapping claims must return the money, University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce president Thanavath Phonvichai advises the government to take a humanitarian approach in this case.
“The bottom line is that the government is there to help people,” he said.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk
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